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Chris Bieri, Grand Forks Herald , Published March 06 2012

Smoldering Crystal fire ties up East Grand Forks firefighters

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. - The Fire Department here continued to work into Tuesday evening on a smoldering fire at a sugar-beet pellet warehouse on the American Crystal Sugar Co. complex on the east side of town.

While the fire didn’t produce a mass of flames, it smoked and smoldered throughout the afternoon as firefighters and equipment operators alternately attempted to tame the smoke and remove the pellets from the building.

About 18 firefighters responded to the scene, according to Assistant Fire Chief Gary Larson. The East Grand Forks Fire Department has only 10 full-time firefighters and had to call in an on-call firefighter, of which it has 22, when it became clear this would be a protracted battle.

Firefighters responded to a fire alert at 11:06 a.m., and had to battle thick smoke to climb the 30-foot-high pellet pile.

Larson said firefighters poured water and foam onto the pile, but were unable to completely extinguish the fire, which was buried deep inside the mass of pellets.

“We’ve had similar circumstances at peat-moss storage fires,” he said. “You can spray all you want, but if the fire is down below you can’t penetrate it.”

Firefighters limited the smoke by mid-afternoon, and crews went to work removing the pellets by pay loader from the nearly half-filled warehouse, which Larson estimated to be 40 yards by 100 yards.

The pellets are formed from beet pulp left over during the processing of the sugar beets and dried.

“They are wet like peat moss,” Larson said. “They kind of smolder on themselves and don’t break into a raging fire.”

He wasn’t worried about the fire spreading, but he said crews would have to clear out enough of the pellets to reach the hot spot and either remove the smoldering section or extinguish it.

By late afternoon, the smoke was starting to get worse again, he said.

“You can see up on top from the back of the pile there’s a chimney of smoke coming up,” he said. “We don’t know how deep it is in the pile.”